The Edict of Milan

One can’t help being impressed by the unintended consequences of the Edict of Milan. It was the watershed of the ancient church. Existing unofficially, Christianity retained the apocalyptic orientation given to it by the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. The Edict of Milan crushed the apocalyptic orientation. Constantine reoriented the concerns of the church for over a thousand years. (Justo Gonzales believes the eschatological concerns that the church then sees resurgent in the 19th and 20th Centuries are the result of finally getting past having Christianity as the official religion. It is an intriguing suggestion.)

Before the Edict of Milan, you had martyrs, afterward, you didn’t get so many. You had a church that suddenly drew more people: now there were new attractions in terms of influence, social standing, possibilities for power. While the monastic movement had already begun, the churches, with all kinds of adherents, become more questionable to the committed. Some started looking around and thinking there had to be more to it than this. They fled to the desert seeking more, seeking a life of prayer and discipline. They wanted to be poor, they wanted to be soldiers, they wanted to flee a corrupt world in which Christianity was acceptable . . . and they attracted the poor and zealous. One of the curious things about some of those gated communities is that the people who banged on their doors and were allowed to enter after a long wait weren’t always baptized. They didn’t so much want the church as they wanted the discipline, the ordered life, the higher and elite life.

And then there are complications brought to theological disputes. Things had not been easy before, but after the edict the Arian dispute dragged on with many more plot twists and the Monophysite controversy was insanely complicated. (No wonder sometimes adversaries find it hard to take those disputes seriously.) Now the differences were about much more than theology, they stretched to include politics on the world stage. A church problem is suddenly greater than a single congregation, a denominational split now involves the emperor, his policies and armies.

Of course, the temporal gains were often short lived. But these represented battles fought and lost, discouragements, expenditure of effort and accumulations of resentment and animosity. That had existed before, but the legacy of the Edict of Milan is the new scale. At one point the Christians burned down a synagogue. The emperor was inclined to make them restore the damages, and this was only right. (It is the government’s job to protect it’s citizen’s property.) Ambrose of Milan stepped in and prevented it. He believed it would be wrong for Christians to build synagogues. You can see where he’s coming from, I’m sure. Still, it was shameful to prevent justice in this instance, to degrade the temporal citizenship of certain citizens and to do it in the name of the religion of the Apostle Paul.

Even Athanasius appealed to Constantine in doctrinal disputes, and that was what earned him his final period of exile. Athanasius came to the attention of the Emperor again by his appeal, and the wily Eusebius of Nicomedia, a bishop of no small political acumen, then capitalized on the influence he had so carefully earned and got for Athanasius a surprise. Another such situation was seen later in Constantinople. Chrysostom was out of his depth in the charged atmosphere of the splendid capital. He was accused of Origenism; John Chrysostom, the disciple of the literal and historical Diodorus (who was even literal about the Song of Solomon), accused of following Origen of allegorical renown. He fought back by publicly calling the empress Jezebel. He was of course deposed and hounded to death–the truth of what he said being irresistible.

And Origen–the George MacDonald of Alexandria. Against the Gnostics he sought a true Gnosis: in Scripture, in the LXX the church used. He knew that the bare literal level leaves tensions that have to be resolved at a deeper level. He went deeper. He had a literal translation of the OT that was done by a man who had forsaken Christianity to become a Jew and had produced a crudely literal translation in support of his views. Origen became the scourge of Chiliasm. He also repudiated his teacher Clement of Alexandria’s sunny opinions of pagan philosophers. Origen memorized Scripture and sought to defend and understand it; he was severe, he was formidable, he was admired, he was called upon to debate. His problem seems to be that he explained too much, that he felt qualified to speculate without a lot to go on. In dismissing great minds he was overconfident in his own (he was immensely learned and able; he acquired the learning of the pagan world while repudiating the very source with dismissive contempt, and that repudiation was wrong). He devised an unrevealed creation before creation, a fall before the fall, and it was all in order to explain his universalist belief. If you had asked him why he argued in ways that seemed to take the side of the devil and that went so far beyond the things written, why he speculated as freely as he did, I think he would have told you: I do not believe love can fail in the end. In his day, he insulted the wrong crowd most cleverly by saying one thing and probably meaning another. But it was after the Edict of Milan, in the politics of the empire and the controverted controversies subsequent that his bad name was sealed forever as the councils found it expedient or necessary to disown him.

It is not the whole truth to say that the Edict of Milan was disastrous for the church: it wasn’t. But it wasn’t what Eusebius of Cesarea thought it was: the triumph of the church in time.


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